“It’s really interesting to actually listen to other people and what they believe. If people learned more about the religious beliefs of others, a lot of problems could be solved and conflict could be prevented.” — Lujain Ali Al-Khawi
Sundays at the Interfaith Youth Leadership Coalition (IYLC) are meant to stimulate honest conversation. Questions are strongly encouraged.
That isn’t always the way it works when it comes to a divisive topic like religion. But for this small group of Twin Cities high schoolers, meeting twice a month for open discussion helps them relate to the world better.
“We all need to unite in order to understand one another. If we can’t find the ability to embrace this open dialogue, then we’ll always be fearful when it comes to approaching each other on the topic of religion,” said Lujain Ali Al-Khawi, a junior at Blaine High School.
At a recent IYLC meeting in St. Paul, a Hmong speaker visited the group to talk about Shamanism. As she spoke about her faith and culture, not only were the questions respectful, but the teenagers asking them were also visibly invested, craving to learn more.
With its main goal to inspire service and engage youth, the IYLC is affiliated with the St. Paul Area Council of Churches. Fardosa Hassan, the group’s coordinator, describes the organization as “a safe place for someone to express themselves without the fear of being judged.”
A graduate of Augsburg College, Hassan discovered her passion for different religions in a required Christianity 101 course. Since that introduction, her primary focus has been spreading awareness about the importance of interfaith discussion.
Al-Khawi, a Muslim, said she believes that open dialogue about religion “really helps broaden perspectives on a global level.”
“It’s really interesting to actually listen to other people and what they believe,” she said. “If people learned more about the religious beliefs of others, a lot of problems could be solved and conflict could be prevented.”
RESPECT AND CURIOSITY
One of the biggest worries facing teenagers is the possibility of offending someone who holds different beliefs, Hassan said. It’s because of this fear that fundamentally important discussion topics like race, religion, politics and marriage have become taboo.
Confronting that limited dialogue makes IYLC a refreshing experience for both the youth and adults involved in interfaith conversations, Hassan said. Serving as neutral ground for youth representatives of various faiths—even atheists are welcome—meetings are meant to foster greater respect and curiosity among teens.
“It’s most inspiring to see that these high school students have so much passion for faith and are giving back to the community. It’s very inspiring to see these young people that aren’t afraid to express themselves or ask questions,” Hassan said. “The questions they are asking are tough, but very respectful. It’s because of that respect and that curiosity that I get inspired every day.”
Rachel Farber, a Jewish freshman from Mendota Heights, and her brother, Noah, a junior, discovered the IYLC through their mother, who works at the Jewish Community Relations Council. Since they’ve both been asked to speak about Judaism before, the Farbers aren’t strangers to discussing their faith. However, addressing it outside their Jewish community was a bit intimidating, Noah said.
“It’s definitely important to go outside of your comfort zone. I know that the world isn’t full of just Jewish people. It’s full of a ton of diversity and diverse people with different opinions and beliefs,” he said. “It’s important to know about your own religion, but it’s equally important to be informed about other religions around the world.”
Rachel added: “If you know about another religion and understand it, then you’re less likely to discriminate or persecute people for their beliefs.”
A SHIFTING LANDSCAPE
The main source of difficulty for the IYLC is finding teens who want to make religion a priority outside of their customary places of worship, Hassan said. With academics, sports, extracurriculars, social lives and jobs taking up so much of their time, spending an extra Sunday or two talking about religion might be too much to juggle.
“People aren’t resistant to it,” Hassan said. “It’s just that it isn’t prioritized.”
The world around teens is changing, too. According to a survey on religion by the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C., the religious makeup of the United States is growing more diverse. More than 44 percent of adult Americans have switched religious affiliation over time.
Among Millennials (ages 18 to 29), one in four are unaffiliated with any faith. They also attend religious services less than older Americans, are less likely to belong to their parents or grandparents’ religion, and generally, say religion is less important to their lives.
Hassan wonders if that’s because “real” religious conversation isn’t encouraged enough. By opening up about religion and other heavy topics, teens can discover that they have more “similarities than differences,” Rachel said. Even promoting healthy dialogue within friend groups can make a difference.
“It’s important to join the movement of interfaith dialogue. Just by going up to a friend and discussing religion, just having that discussion and being polite about it is important,” Hassan said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions as long as you do it in a respectful way.”